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Posts Tagged ‘multiperspectivity’

Since starting work in the museums sector in Germany, I have gained a new appreciation for the positive role funders and political decision-makers can and do make in the effort to change museums into meaningful social agents. They can be and regularly are valuable allies. So, although I share most museum professionals’ unease about the idea of being pushed in a certain direction by outside forces, in this case, I would actually welcome more definite requirements.

 

Let me explain.

 

To start off, being a social agent is most simply defined by the impact or impacts an institution has within society, and these impacts range from the more cautious to the more radical, from the three areas of the British Museum Association’s Museums Change Lives campaign to the demands formulated after Ferguson [1].

 

In Germany, ‘participation’ is the key word around which we may cluster the various discussions on this topic. The landmark case of the ‘participatory museum’ [2] is the Historisches Museum Frankfurt, which, from all I can gather, really has placed participation, in the sense of inclusion and democratization, front and centre not only of its recent redevelopment, but also its on-going operation since reopening. It is an example that is regularly cited and represented at current conferences, and rightly so.

 

However, with equal regularity, there follows a heated debate: delegates challenge and question the idea of participation, arguing that it devalues expertise, subjects museums to the yoke of plebiscite, and overall reduces quality. How far this rejection can go is illustrated in a recent comment made by Gregor Jansen, director of the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf. He criticises the expectation that ‘everything’ should be ‘sacrificed’ to ‘Vermittlung’ (interpretation, public engagement) and that institutions are expected to use ‘simple language’, which in his words is like telling an athlete not to put in too much effort [3].

 

In this environment, funders and political decision-makers have turned out to be great allies when it comes to working toward museums having a bigger and broader impact in society [4]. Decision-makers have a clear expectation: they are beholden to the public at large, not a small section with the knowledge and education required to understand highly specialised treatises on a narrow topic. They want culture (and thus museums) to be representative of a diverse society, supporting things like inclusion and integration (see for example the new German Government’s coaltion agreement here, p. 166) . The same goes for many funders, who in Germany are often associated with the public purse and building societies. Perhaps because of this broad base they, too, often have a focus on wide-spread impact.

 

In other countries, funders’ requirements have already changed the sector. There can be no doubt that the Heritage Lottery Fund’s scoring on its desired outcomes (heritage, people, communities) has altered how museums and heritage organisations in the United Kingdom approach and deliver their work. The message has always been as clear as it has been uncompromising: you either deliver on these outcomes, or you will not get funding from us.

 

German funders generally are still more subtle than that. They engage in more conversations with the sector as a matter of course than I have seen elsewhere. On one hand that is fantastic, for it is always good to be engaged in an exchange. On the other hand it means that things can move very slowly. The desired change at this rate may take a very long time, and the pressing issues we were meant to tackle – migration, radicalisation, disenfranchisement – may have moved beyond our reach by then.

 

So, despite my above reservations, in this instance, I think it would be a good thing for funders and political decision-makers to be more adamant about what it is they expect their funding to do. Why not make funding decisions dependent on a museum’s commitment to deliver just that? The impact would be one of accelerated change. And we are not talking about communicating a party manifesto here, or implementing a particular world view. Nor am I suggesting some superficial tick-boxing. Rather, in this case, it is (most) funders and decision-makers who are actually the ones that want museums to go beyond a narrow interest, and truly have an impact on society. Personally, I can only consider that to be a good thing.

 

 

Notes

[1] In case there is any doubt, I am on the more radical end of the spectrum.

[2] Nina Simon’s book of 2010 is an often referred to textbook.

[3] His choice of words is important here. It displays an underlying contempt for the people who require these sorts of interventions (interpretation, simple language). In the interview he goes on to talk about ‘Höchstleistung’, or maximum performance, as that which is hindered by all these other efforts. Clearly, to him there is only one aim to be served by museums, and that is output at the highest academic level for those who understand it. All else is an unwelcome distraction.

[4] I meet funders very regularly these days due to a major museum reorganisation complete with a new building that we are planning at my workplace. And it is in my conversations with them that I receive the greatest encouragement about what it is I am trying to do in and with museums. Not all of them, granted, but the majority.

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